Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
Oct. 13, 2006 —Nine Neolithic-era buildings have been excavated in the Stonehenge world heritage site, according to a report in the journal British Archaeology.
The structures, which appear to have been homes, date to 2,600-2,500 B.C. and were contemporary with the earliest stone settings at the site's famous megalith. They are the first house-like structures discovered there.
Julian Thomas, who worked on the project and is chair of the archaeology department at Manchester University in England, said Stonehenge could have been a key gathering place at the Neolithic era's version of a housing development.
The buildings all had plaster floors and timber frames, and most had a central hearth. Two, including a house possibly inhabited by a community chief or priest, were enclosed by ringed ditches, the largest measuring 131 feet across. Postholes indicate a wooden fence would have surrounded the smaller of the two structures.
"If the structure inside the large ditch was indeed a chief's house, this individual would have been living rather humbly like the rest of the population, since the building itself wouldn't have been elaborate," Thomas said. "It's like a humble house that was meant to be separated and secluded from the outside world."
Near the buildings were remnants of grooved pottery characteristic of the period, along with stone tools. The findings suggest many people lived at the site around 4,600 years ago.
Thomas thinks many more residences could have once stood there.
"People at that time were probably mobile and living in flimsy buildings, which would have since eroded," he explained.
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology and a leading expert on Stonehenge, told Discovery News the two isolated buildings at the site may have been shrines and not residences, but he thinks it's also possible the buildings were home to Stone Age VIP's.
"Perhaps these did house chiefs, or powerful priests," said Pitts. "Work is continuing, but it is clear that at last we are starting to see the exceptional archaeology we would expect to find in a landscape that until recently was (thought to be) almost empty except, at its center, for Stonehenge."
Excavation work is expected to continue over the next three summers.